Mandan Tribe

Mandan Tribe: Painting by Karl Bodmer

This article contains interesting facts, pictures and information about the life of the Mandan Native American Indian Tribe of the Great Plains.

The Mandan Tribe
Summary and Definition: The Mandan tribe of North Dakota, "the tattooed people", were traditionally hunters, traders and farmers who lived in fortified villages of earth lodges on the Great Plains. The name of the most famous chiefs of the Mandan tribe included Abdih-Hiddisch, which translates as "Road-Maker" and Mah-to-teh-pa, or Chief Four Bears and Chief Shahaka (Big White).

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Facts about the Mandan Native Indian Tribe
This article contains fast, fun facts and interesting information about the Mandan Native American Indian tribe. Find answers to questions like where did the Mandan tribe live, what clothes did they wear, what did they eat and who were the names of their most famous leaders? Discover what happened to the Mandan tribe with facts about their wars and history.

The Mandan tribe - The "Tattooed People"
The Mandan tribe were known as "the tattooed people". The above picture by by Karl Bodmer (1809-1893) clearly depicts tattoos on the chest, right arm and hand of the Mandan Native Indian together with additional tattoos on his neck and face. In Mandan mythology the Creator god, Tirawa, was believed to have taught the Mandan people the art of tattooing. Native American Indian tattoos were highly symbolic marking an important event in a person's progress in life and often accompanied by sacred ceremonies. The Mandan tribe used a variety of dyes and pigments for tattoos.

  • Black Tattoos: Natural black dyes were achieved by the application of soot or bone black which was an animal charcoal produced by charring animal bones

  • Brown / Reddish Tattoos: Reddish dyes and pigments were achieved by the application of ochre mixed with clay

  • Blue Tattoos: Blue dyes were achieved by the application of indigo, a dye that was plentiful in North America

What was the lifestyle and culture of the Mandan tribe?
Most of the Plains tribes gave up permanent villages after they got horses, but this was not the case of the Mandan tribe. The Mandan tribe were semi-nomadic tribe of hunters and farmers. The Mandan cultivated their lands and raised crops of corn, beans, sunflowers, squashes, and pumpkins. The Mandan tribe famous from the tattooing on face and body. The system of using sign language was developed to facilitate communication between all of the different tribes who inhabited the Great Plains and to facilitate trade with the white trappers and traders. The Mandan were described in the Native Indian sign language as "the tattooed people." The Mandan tribe lived in permanent villages of earthlodges near the Missouri River. Their fortified villages were surrounded by palisades and became commercial trading centers during the fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Mandan became closely associated with the Arikara and the Hidatsa who collectively became known as the 'Three Tribes'.


Where did the Mandan tribe live?
The Mandan are people of the Great Plains Native American cultural group. The location of their tribal homelands are shown on the map.  The geography of the region in which they lived dictated the lifestyle and culture of the Mandan tribe.

  • The American Great Plains region mainly extended across states of Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota

  • Tribal Territories: North Dakota and South Dakota

  • Land: Grass covered prairies with some streams and rivers

  • Climate: Hot summers and cold winters

  • Animals: The  animals included the Bison (Buffalo), deer, elk, bear, porcupine, antelope, prairie dogs, eagles and wolves

  • Fish: Various fish including sturgeon, crayfish and mussels

  • Crops: The crops grown in the area were corn, beans, sunflower seeds, pumpkins and squash

Map showing Native American Indians Cultural Groups

Map showing location of the
Great Plains Native American Cultural Group


Mandan Tribe: Earth Lodge village and bullboats

What did the Mandan tribe live in?
The Mandan tribe lived in earth lodges, which was a type of permanent home for Native Indians who lived in harsh climates without large forests. The Mandan also used tepees as a form of temporary shelter when they went on buffalo hunts.

Earth Lodges
Earth lodges were built over shallow pits, with a wooden, domed mound built over the top that was neatly covered with earth or reeds. The Mandan built their earth lodges near their fields, usually on bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. Among the early Plains tribes that also lived in earth lodges were the Arikara, Hidatsa, Pawnee, Omaha and the Osage.


What type of transport did the Mandan Tribe use?
The main type of transport for the Mandan tribe was the horse. However, the village tribes like the Mandan who lived along the Missouri River also used a small, bowl-shaped bullboat. They made the bullboat by stretching a buffalo hide over a wooden frame. It was too clumsy for water travel, but it could be used to ferry people and products across the river and for fishing. The above picture by Karl Bodmer was painted c1832 and shows a Mandan village and bullboat. 

Mandan American Indian with Tattoos

What clothes did the Mandan men wear?
The clothes worn by the Mandan men consisted of breechcloths, fringed buckskin tunics and leggings. Warm buffalo robes or cloaks or blankets were also worn to protect against the rain and the cold. The Mandan men wore beaded, straight-up feathered bonnets in a halo style decorated with eagle feathers and beadwork as a symbol of courage and accomplishments. They sometimes wore a long ornament worn at the back of the head made using sticks covered with eagle feathers and dyed porcupine quills. These were neatly fastened to the hair and reached down to the shoulders. They wore moccasins, a soft, light beige, slip-on shoe, consisting of a sole and sides made of one piece of leather.

Mandan Clothing
The women of the Mandan tribe were responsible for making the clothes worn by the people. Most garments were sewn from the soft, tanned skins of deer (buckskin) and buffalo hide. Mandan clothing was often decorated with paint, porcupine quills or beadwork. Mandan clothing for both men and women were adorned with ornaments, especially necklaces and earrings.

What clothes did the Mandan women wear?
The type of clothes worn by the Mandan women were knee-length dresses and leggings. The women also wore the buffalo robes to keep warm and dry. The dresses of the Mandan women that were used for special ceremonies were intricately decorated with beads. Dresses were also painted with symbols that reflected their tribal identity and family values celebrating acts of courage by their men or sacrifices made for the well-being of the family and tribe. Mandan women wore their hair long worn in two, thick braids that were often decorated with beads.

What language did the Mandan tribe speak?
The Mandan tribe spoke in the Caddoan language.

Mandan tribe - Winter Counts and Picture Writing
The Mandan used picture writing to record their history. Winter counts were pictorial calendars or histories in which tribal records and events were recorded in picture writing The Winter counts named each year by an outstanding event. The famous Leonid meteor shower took place on the morning of November 13, 1833 that was witnessed throughout North America was recorded in a Mandan Winter count.

What food did the Mandan tribe eat?
The food that the Mandan tribe ate included the crops they raised of corn, sunflower seeds, beans, pumpkins and squash. The food from their crops was supplemented by fish and meat, especially bison, that was acquired on the hunting trips. The meats also included deer, elk, bear and wild turkey. Their main food were supplemented with roots and wild vegetables such as spinach, prairie turnips and potatoes together with berries and fruits such as melon. When food was scarce the Mandan tribe ate dried buffalo meat, called pemmican.

What was the religion and beliefs of the Mandan tribe?
The religion and beliefs of the Mandan tribe was based on Animism that encompassed the spiritual or religious idea that the universe and all natural objects animals, plants, trees, rivers, mountains rocks etc have souls or spirits. The Great Plains tribes such as the Mandan believed in Manitou, the Great Spirit.

What were the rituals of the Mandan tribe? The Sun Dance Ceremony
The rituals and ceremonies of the Mandan tribe and many other Great Plains Native Indians, included the Sweat Lodge ceremony, the Vision Quest and the Sun Dance Ceremony. During the infamous Sun Dance ceremony the young men of the Mandan tribe endured a a four day ordeal in which they were first cleansed in a sweat lodge, then undertook a long solitary experience exposed to the heat of the day and the cold of the night. They then entered a special lodge and had parts of their bodies slashed and were hung up by ropes attached to skewers in the shape of sharp animal claws, that were embedded in their flesh. The scars they bore served as a mark that they had undergone the Sun Dance ritual and had undertaken a difficult journey on their Vision Quest. The last Mandan Sun dance ceremony (Okipa) was performed in 1889. The Mandan tribe used the sacred, ceremonial pipe (called a Calumet), which was ritually filled with tobacco and passed among participants at all sacred ceremonies of the Mandan Tribe.

What weapons did the Mandan use?
The weapons used by the Mandan tribe included bows and arrows, stone ball clubs, hatchet axes, spears, lance and knives. Painted war shields were used on horseback as a means of defence. The Mandan tribe developed a ceremony to consecrate firearms. Many tribes attributed the outcome of battles to good or bad 'medicine, not the accuracy of the shooters.

Who were the most famous leaders and chiefs of the Mandan tribe?
The most famous leaders and chiefs of the Mandan tribe were Abdih-Hiddisch, (Chief Road-Maker) and Mah-to-teh-pa (Chief Four Bears), Chief Shahaka (Big White), Chief Red Cow and Chief Gray Eyes. The tribe were enemies of the Lakota Sioux and the Assiniboine tribes.

Mandan History Timeline: What happened to the Mandan tribe?
The following history timeline details facts, dates and famous landmarks and battles fought by the Mandan Nation. The timeline explains exactly what happened to the Mandan tribe. The Mandan have originally formed a single tribe with the Gros Ventre.

Mandan History Timeline

  • 1250: The Mandan tribe migrate from the Ohio Valley to the Great Plains region and continued their farming lifestyle living in fortified villages of earth lodges but extend their lifestyle to include hunting

  • 1575: The Mandan build the fortified On-a-Slant village which was occupied for at least 200 years

  • 1650: Mandan villages are located between Cannonball and Knife Rivers

  • 1670: Mandan make contact with English traders on the Hudson Bay obtaining metal axes and spear points

  • 1781: The tribe abandon On-a-Slant village following a devastating smallpox epidemic

  • 1804: The Lewis and Clark expedition visited and established friendly relations with the Mandan tribe

  • 1805:  Mandan Chief Shahaka (Big White) travelswith Lewis and Clark to visit President Thomas Jefferson

  • 1823: The Arikara War against the US erupts along the upper Missouri River in Dakota Territory following Arikara attacks on the boats of American traders

  • 1825: Treaty signed with the US represented by General Henry Atkinson and Major Benjamin O'Fallonare

  • 1836: Conflicts with the Sioux

  • 1837: Smallpox epidemic strikes the 'Three Tribes'. Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara villages and the Mandan Chief Four Bears dies of the deadly disease

  • 1849: Cholera and smallpox epidemics led to the extermination of many Mandan and the destruction of their villages

  • 1850: The depleting number of Mandans formed alliances with the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes

  • 1851: The Treaty at Fort Laramie made agreements to the territories of the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa tribes

  • 1860's: Attacks by the Sioux increase

  • 1866: The Three Tribes negotiate the Treaty of 1866 with the US and lose more lands on the northeast side of the Missouri River

  • 1870: The tribe was moved to their present reservation at Fort Berthold together with the Hidatsa and Mandan tribes

  • 1876: The Great Sioux War of 1876 - 1877 -  the Mandan refuse to become involved

  • 1876: The Buffalo War - Buffalo are wantonly slaughtered all over the Great Plains (over 65 million were destroyed by white hunters) depriving the Native Indians of their means to live

  • 1889: The last Mandan Sun dance (Okipa) ceremony is held

Mandan History Timeline

The Story of Mandan
For additional facts and information about legends refer to the Mandan Story of Four Bears.


  • Interesting Facts and information about the way the people lived
  • The clothes worn by men and women
  • Description of the homes and the type of food the Mandan would eat
  • Fast Facts and info about the Mandan
  • Names of famous chiefs and leaders
  • Interesting Homework resource for kids on the history of the Mandan Native American Indians

Pictures and Videos of Native American Indians and their Tribes
The Mandan Tribe was one of the most famous tribes of the Great Plains Native American Indians. Discover the vast selection of pictures on the subject of the tribes of Famous Native Americans such as the Mandan nation. The pictures show the clothing, war paint, weapons and decorations of various Native Indian tribes, such as the Mandan tribe, that can be used as a really useful educational resource for kids and children of all ages. We hope you enjoy watching the video - just click and play - a great social studies homework resource for kids .



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